Tag Archives: book recommendations

Don’t Hate on Nonfiction

28 Dec

Originally found here.

When friends ask me for a book recommendation, I’m really really good at it. I love reading and have a wide range of types of books that I read, and I have a knack for picking books for people that they will like. I take into account what I know about them as a person, as a reader, what their interests are, and I pick books that they end up loving, devouring. I wish there was a career there. A Reading Consultant. Much like a therapist, my clients could come in and describe their lives and their reading hangups to me, and I would guide them to a world of books that they never knew existed, a reading utopia. I wonder how much I could charge for that?

I was at work the other day talking with two of the veterinarians. Dr. L was about to take a week off from work to relax and spend time with her family on Long Island. She lamented to me about how she doesn’t take pleasure in reading anymore. In her undergrad, she was a dual major in Biology and English. The English major part of her feels guilty that she never reads anymore. She asked me for some book recommendations.

“What aren’t you liking about the books you’ve tried reading?” I asked her (see what a good Reading Consultant I am!)
“I get bored with the plots and find myself not caring. I end up skimming through huge chunks of the books trying to find the point. Med school ruined the way I read. I’m always trying to find the facts.”
“Then maybe you need to be reading Nonfiction.”
Both Dr. L and Dr. N gave me ick faces.
“Nonfiction is so horrible and boring,” Dr N said.
“Not the right kind of nonfiction! I love reading nonfiction. You just have to know where to find the non-textbooky nonfiction. Didn’t you love ‘Brain on Fire‘?” I asked Dr. L.
“I couldn’t put it down. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.”
“There you go. That’s nonfiction. And with all the fucked-up tv and movies you watch, I bet you’d love true crime books. Have you ever read ‘Helter Skelter’ or ‘The Stranger Beside Me.'”
“I feel guilty. The English major in me feels like I should be reading works of literature.”

“You’re not in school anymore,” I told her. “No one gives a shit if you are reading Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina. If you miss reading, just read whatever book you enjoy. You don’t have to force yourself to read classics.”

I believe that the majority of people who don’t read regularly or who say they don’t like reading are suffering from a form of PTSD from being forced to read boring, shitty books while in school and college. Some people suffer more than others. I understand that there are important classics that society wants the younger generations to be familiar with, but our school systems seem to be doing more harm than good in forcing literature on children. Not everyone is going to love Shakespeare or Milton or Emily Dickinson. And I think forced encounters with writers make people want to never read again once they are done with school. And I think the genres that suffer most are Short Stories, Poetry, and Nonfiction.

Nonfiction can be dull and full of research and works cited, or it can be exciting and strange. The old adage, stranger than fiction, is talking about nonfiction. When strange things happen in fiction, it’s easy to criticize them as a reader and say, “That would never happen.” In nonfiction, it’s all real and you find yourself saying “I can’t believe that happened!”

So I honestly believe that anyone who isn’t enjoying reading should start off my giving nonfiction a shot. I recommended “A Kim Jong Il Production” to Dr. L and when she came back from her vacation she gushed about how much she loved it and couldn’t put it down. See! Highly-acclaimed Reading Consultant Chrissy Wilson, at your service.

Some of my most-loved nonfiction titles:

  • The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. A book that doubles as a narrative of poor depression-era men at the University of Washington and describing the evolution of 1930’s Nazi Germany propaganda. The back and forth of the narrative works, and the characters are rich and endearing.
  • A Little Book of Language by David Crystal. For the word nerd, this book is a quick read about the nature of language and linguistics, how we learn language and how we use it.
  • Zeitoon by Dave Eggers. The story of a man from New Orleans who remained in the city during Hurricane Katrina. It documents the hurricane, the aftermath, and the way he was treated by government officials. It’s unbelievable that this sort of thing happened in America, and it shows how out-of-control American xenophobia (especially toward Muslims in the post 9/11 era) can be. Dave Eggers also wrote “What is the What,” another great nonfiction book documenting the immigrant experience.
  • The Peaceable Kingdom: A Year in the Life of America’s Oldest Zoo by John Sedgewick. A must-read for animal lovers. This is a perfect example of a nonfiction book that isn’t out to teach anything, just to tell the true story (more like stories) of people who work in an unconventional field.
  • Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life by Ann Lamott. If you’ve ever wanted to write, if you have ever felt trapped in a creative dead-end, this is the book that most every writer alive today has read and continues to turn to. It’s an inspiration about how to write and about how to live, which to writers is often the same thing.
  • Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach. I love books by Mary Roach because they are informative and digestible. She takes a big subject (in this case death) and writes quick chapters that describe the scientific approaches over the years to understand these topics. She talks about seances, the attempt to measure the soul (21 grams), angels.
  • Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer. Another master of nonfiction, this book is about the history of the Mormon church. A classic example of a book where fact is stranger than fiction. It culminates in descriptions of fundamentalist Mormons. Important proof that all religions are prone to extremists and bad interpretation.



Sylvia Plath and Aziz Ansari

19 Dec

From the amazing zenpencils.tumblr.com

I have been watching Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix show “Master of None.” I’m a huge fan of his comedy, and the show doesn’t disappoint. He’s one of those comedians that manages to be hilarious while remaining smart and thought-provoking. He’s unafraid to mix silly humor with humor that requires a modicum of intelligence. In the season finale (won’t give anything away), his father quotes Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.” Aziz’s character goes to a bookstore and reads a section of the book while thinking about his life.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

I love Sylvia Plath. And I love “The Bell Jar.” In college, I was obsessed with the book like so many millions of women of the age when life is a giant abyss before you with too many questions and too much uncertainty. I only learned years later that it was a cliche to be a young woman who loves Sylvia Plath. So even though I had read the book a half-dozen times, nodding along to every poetic sentence that seemed to dig into my heart, I stopped talking about it. I didn’t want to be that girl. The one that wears black and thinks big, dramatic thoughts about life and feminism. The Sylvia Plath fan who had likewise gone through sad times in life and felt inspired by the poets ability to channel it into beautiful words, poems, stories.

But I am that girl. The book remains one of my favorite because of passages that speak so directly to what it feels like to live in this day and age. I think the above quote is so apt for so many young people’s lives. It wasn’t long ago when people chose their profession usually by what their family did, what business their parents pushed them into. You worked where you apprenticed. You did what the community needed. Now we live in a global community with new levels of equality never seen before, especially for women. And these choices can be overwhelming. I know in the last couple of years I’ve considered veterinary school, law school, med school, speech/language pathology, writing, editing, web design. We are told to not settle, to find our true passion.

I don’t think that means certainty, though, and this is what Plath is speaking to. I envy my friends who decided what they wanted to be at 8-years-old and are now doing it. For the majority of us, though, I don’t think that’s the case. I think we, like Sylvia Plath, see hundreds of possibilities before us and are taught to wait for which one magically sings to us. But in this waiting, we let opportunity slip by. This quote got me thinking about choosing a fig, about just grabbing one. I’d argue with Plath that choosing a fig doesn’t mean that there are no other chances to choose another. After all, she did become a famous poet. But she also became a wife and mother. She took her own life at a shockingly young age, but if she hadn’t, there are plenty of figs that could have been before her. That’s the key to reading Plath. It’s the key to reading a lot of sad, dramatic writing. You can’t read it from within the Bell Jar, from her lens of negativity. You have to read it critically from the outside. Sure, swim around in her beautiful language, but also remember that she was wrong about some things. Reading her writing never depressed me, it always helped me to see anxiety-filled situations from a different lens and to feel less alone in those insecurities.

If you haven’t watched “Master of None,” you should do so as soon as possible. If for no other reason than to support a comedian who believes in quoting a poet on a television show. And you really must read “The Bell Jar.” Maybe even balance the two! Feel the melancholy of Plath and let Ansari cheer you up.